Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The regressive nature of value added tax (VAT) ...and its corresponding effects on the purchasing power of the populace particular the middle and lower classes in a society

The Fiscal Reform Series: A model VAT implementation

In the midst of the continuing debate on fiscal reform in The Bahamas, we must keep our eyes on the prize (and the price) and not forget the ultimate goal of embarking on this important venture.

The fundamental purpose of the fiscal reform exercise is to reduce the government’s recurrent deficit, curb and control expenditure, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of tax administration and restore our debt-to-GDP ratio to a more healthy position while ensuring that the country experiences economic growth and development.

It must be reiterated that if it decides to, The Bahamas will not be the first jurisdiction on the globe to implement Value Added Tax (VAT) and will probably not be the last to do so. There has been considerable discourse on the experiences of other nations that have implemented VAT, with Barbados being referenced from time to time, although the opinions on its level of success have been diverse.

It is noteworthy that Singapore and New Zealand have been touted as success stories in the introduction of VAT. This week, we conclude this series with a look at what model VAT implementation would entail and whether it is possible in the Bahamian context.

Fiscal reform and the tax component

In the case of The Bahamas, there has been a consistent call for the better administration of existing taxes and improvement of compliance with the same. Additionally, stakeholders including the private sector have called for better management of government expenditure with specific recommendations for target reduction in public spending.

The importance of economic growth in the overall equation has also been highlighted during public discourse. The vital message from opponents and commentators on VAT has been the need to focus more on a comprehensive fiscal reform program than on tax reforms aimed at increasing government revenue.

There is no doubt and we all agree at this point that reforms are mandatory and urgent action is required. The interesting point in this debate is that the aforementioned points are all elements of the government’s fiscal consolidation plan. This suggests that both sides appear to be on the same page in relation to the approaches to be taken to address the country’s fiscal imbalance.

However, the bones of contention seem to be the order in which the plan is implemented, the ability of the government to execute the plan and the selection of new taxes and measures to enhance government revenue.

The ideal VAT implementation

The general consensus among consumption tax experts is that this form of taxation works best when it has the broadest base possible and a single or common rate for all supplies. Ideally, the need for tax reform will not only be echoed in words by relevant stakeholders but also supported by their actions.

While skepticism over government initiatives aimed at raising revenue is to be expected, there will be general buy-in among the entire populace based on the financial circumstances of the country. For its part the government would also have done a decent job in explaining the reasons for the necessary reforms and the consultation as well as the education processes would be comprehensive including all stakeholders while providing ample time for feedback and rollout of the tax.

The reality however is that this is often not as easy as it seems due to the normal reaction of the private sector and the entire public to the imposition of taxes in general and the implementation of new taxes in particular. When considered in addition to the politicization of tax reforms and the fear of political backlash by the government of the day, this issue becomes even more complicated.

The Singapore experience and The Bahamas’ reality

The experiences of several countries that have implemented VAT or a similar consumption tax show that it is an efficient and effective form of taxation from the government perspective. The often referenced inbuilt compliance/self-policing feature of VAT, stability as a source of revenue and lesser susceptibility to economic cycles continue to be the main reasons for its success rate.

Like The Bahamas, discussions on tax reform in general and the goods and services tax (GST), which is identical to VAT, had been taking place prior to the implementation of the GST on April 1, 1994.

Singapore had issued a White Paper in February 1993 although their government had a draft bill by 1991. The introduction of GST in Singapore was accompanied by a reduction in other taxes including corporate and personal income taxes, among others.

The adjustment of taxes and tax rates as well as grants continued in the years after GST was introduced. It is important at this juncture to state that Singapore enjoyed fiscal surpluses as a percentage of GDP in the year prior to, and the year following the introduction of GST.

Under Singapore’s GST system, only exports are zero-rated while certain financial services as well as the sale and lease of residential properties are exempt. In essence, Singapore was able to maintain a very broad base for the GST.

The introductory registration threshold under Singapore’s GST was SGD 1,000,000 (approximately USD 800,000) and the standard rate was 3% with a commitment not to increase the same within the first five years. It should be noted that Singapore projected that its revenue would be negatively impacted during the transitional period with a return to revenue neutrality subsequently.

In comparison to The Bahamas, Singapore was enjoying economic growth and budget surpluses and was therefore in a much better financial condition when the GST was introduced. Hence, The Bahamas, stuck between a rock and a hard place, cannot afford a transitional period of revenue negativity for the government.

Additionally, the high registration threshold and low GST rate were possible due to the existence of a myriad of other taxes which were reduced to accommodate the new tax in Singapore. Unfortunately, our precarious financial condition and the composition of our economy do not allow for a similar approach. Finally, unlike The Bahamas, one single political party – the People’s Action Party has dominated Singapore’s politics since independence in 1965 gaining significant standing over this period.

The impact on standard and cost of living

Any discussion on VAT will likely include reference to its regressive nature and the corresponding effect on the purchasing power of the populace, in particular the middle and lower classes in a society.

While the government has indicated that certain items (including bread-basket items and other essential services) will be exempted either in their entirety or subject to an established threshold, the concerns remain among consumers. Representatives of the government, by their own admission, recognize that their efforts to boost the level of public awareness and the education of individual consumers have not been stellar.

It remains very important that any revisions to initial proposals be circulated well in advance of the implementation date and a more effective education program be launched and properly executed.

In December 2013, the Financial Secretary indicated that the government will expand social safety net programs by $30 million in the first year that VAT is introduced to provide transitional relief to those that would be unfairly impacted by the new tax. The expansion, according to the government, would last for the first three to five years following the implementation of VAT.

While the adequacy of the increased allocation to welfare programs is subject to scrutiny, this compensatory measure, which is aimed at mitigating the impact of VAT on the poor, differs from the approach taken by countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada due to the existence of other forms of taxation.

In the case of New Zealand, targeted family support income tax credits and welfare benefits via the Guaranteed Minimum Family Income (GMFI) were pivotal in presenting the case for the implementation of consumption tax due to the reduced impact on families with low incomes.

Upsides of VAT?

The obvious expected boost in government revenue, projected reduction in our national debt and recurrent deficit as well as maintenance of our sovereign rating as a result of the introduction of VAT have been reiterated by various commentators. While these benefits are necessities, are there any other additional or potential advantages that could accrue to The Bahamas and Bahamians as a result of VAT?

Will the effective nature of VAT be considered as a part of a bigger reform of existing taxes with a view to replacing the less efficient multiple taxes in existence? Will the introduction of VAT increase the overall tax compliance rate for The Bahamas?

Will the equitable aspect of VAT lead to a redistribution of resources within the Bahamian economy in the long term? What impact will VAT have on the ease of doing business in The Bahamas in the long run? With the successful implementation of the government’s fiscal consolidation plan, can we expect a reduction of other taxes and duties in the long run?

The government will do well to address these questions as part of the education process. Singapore’s GST system was modeled after that of New Zealand in relation to the broad base and single rate. Hence, the proposed discussion between stakeholders in The Bahamas and New Zealand should be instructive and enlightening.

• Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law. Comments on this article can be directed to

April 22, 2014